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Business Aviation Industry Focus: Learjet 23

by Jeremy Cox 1. August 2008 00:00
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Ask anyone that is not normally associated with aviation, 'what is the name of the first small civilian jet that comes into your (their) mind..?' I believe that ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the words: "Learjet" will spill from their subconscious mind. This type of branding is only possible through intensive marketing and publicity, both of which was the work of the legendary William Powell Lear, Sr. Affectionately known as 'Bill Lear', who gave his own last name to this 'household-known' series of aircraft, the Learjet product-line.

A 'Genius' is normally how most people that knew Bill Lear, would describe him. Inspired by Marconi's radio technology, Lear became a radio engineer. His first successful invented radio product was a miniaturized signal reception coil which through its diminutive size, enabled Lear to leap-frog his radio coil company away from the wireless industry into the automotive industry. He invented the first motor car radio and after combining the words 'Motor' and 'Victrola' founded the behemoth-to-be-company 'Motorola.'

Lear was equally fascinated by aviation, as he was with radio, and having learnt to fly he felt that he could combine both of these interests by applying his inventive talents in the radio field to produce navigation products for private aviation. His 'Learoscope' Automatic Direction Finder soon revolutionised air navigation.

During World War II, Lear continued to amass a fortune from aeronautical manufacturing by designing and producing motors, actuators, Archimedean screws and servos for the US government's aviation war machine. During the run-down to the end of the war, Lear went on to design and produce one of the first electro-mechanical autopilot systems, which he installed and tested in his own Beech 18. The autopilot design was widely accepted as revolutionary, and Lear's fortunes continued ever-upward.

After pushing Kelly Johnson's Lockheed Lodestar design into a new performance envelope, and specifically modifying it for business use and naming it the 'Learstar', Lear began to focus his attention towards the design and production of a small business jet aircraft. This was at the same time that the Utility Transport Experimental (UTX) Program was under contention by various aircraft companies (see the Lockheed Jetstar and North American Sabreliner articles, previously published at Globalair.) After several design non-starters, Lear chose to follow his oldest son, Bill, junior's suggestion that there was the perfect business jet aircraft design available for purchase in Switzerland. Bill junior was based in Geneva with his younger brother, John, selling Lear avionics equipment to European airline companies, and during his movements within the Swiss aviation community, he had become immensely impressed with a new Swiss close support fighter aircraft that was in development, but now financially crippled because of several bad accidents with their prototype aircraft. The fighter prototype was designed and produced by the Flug und Fahrzeugwerke Altenrhein (FFA) Company, which when translated from German means: 'Aircraft and Vehicle Works, Altenrhein (in N.E. Switzerland)' the company made aircraft and railway cars. The fighters designation was 'P-16' and its design featured a short 'raked' wing that was equipped with integral tip-tanks. Lear senior understood what his son had seen in this design, and quickly formed the Swiss American Aviation Corporation (SAAC) which then promptly purchased the entire design rights and tooling from FFA, and set-up shop in the neighbouring town of Sankt Gallen, west of Altenrhein.

The 'P-16' was re-designated the SAAC-23, and after a year of redesign work Lear began stirring the world's press into a frenzy, because fast cars, fast jets and fast women were the rage during the swinging sixties, and Lear was very good at pitching his design as fast, sleek and sexy. He touted it as the Everyman Jet, while it's slippery looks accentuated by Lear's two-piece, wrap-around windscreen, was extremely photogenic and therefore a dream for feature editors the world over.

It was Lear's intention to build the Model 23 in Switzerland, but after numerous delays, Lear became impatient with European bureaucracy and moved the entire program to Wichita in Kansas in the United States, in late 1962. Once the shop was unpacked in Wichita, Lear renamed the SAAC-23: the 'Learjet 23 Continental.' Later in the spring of 1963, all ties to Switzerland were severed and SAAC was renamed: 'Learjet Corporation.'

The Lear 23 became the first small jet aircraft to be financed and developed by a private individual, and it was also the first to be 'mass produced.' The initial target price of the Lear 23 was $350,000 in 1961 US Dollars. Unfortunately the move to Wichita was costly and this additional expense was manifested in the final delivered price which was raised to $575,000. The FAA issued the Type Certificate for the Lear 23 on July 31st, 1964 and later that year, Chemical and Industrial Corporation of Cincinnati, Ohio, took delivery of the first production Learjet (serial number 003) in mid October, one year after the first prototype had made its maiden flight.

The Lear 23 was initially certified to carry six passengers and two crew members. A later optional version was approved to carry eight passengers. Certified under the early equivalent of part 23, and weighing in at 12,500 lbs, the aircraft was never approved for single pilot operations, however this didn't stop Lear from flying his personal aircraft for the most part, by himself.

The Lear 23 was powered by two General Electric CJ-610-1 engines that produced 2,850 lbs take-off thrust each. The power-to-weight ratio of the Lear 23 was the same or even better than many contemporary jet fighter aircraft of the day, which meant that it could comfortably hit 'point' nine oh five Mach (608 KTAS) in a shallow dive, while the production models could maintain 440 KTAS at their maximum rated altitude of 41,000 feet. In May of 1965, the Lear 23 set three world speed records by flying from Los Angeles to New York, five thousand and five mile round-trip in a breath-taking ten hours and twenty one minutes including the time necessary to make two fuel stops, one in Wichita and one in Tulsa. This public relations flight was called the 'Dawn-to-Dusk' run. Later in December of 1965, a Lear 23 climbed to forty thousand feet in a jaw dropping seven minutes and twenty one seconds.

The start-up costs of the Learjet Corporation after the un-planned-for relocation almost sunk the company and badly depleted Lear's personal fortune. He was no longer a millionaire as the prototypes made it to final production testing. Bill Lear always put his business interests ahead of his personal life, even though he was burdened with a massive ego, so shortly after the first Model 23 delivered to its client, he was forced to take his company public.

The initial public offering of shares were rapidly gobbled up by both private and institutional investors, thus replenishing the company coffers to enable the company to grow, while Lear still managed to retain the majority shareholding. Unfortunately Bill Lear's flamboyant and volatile management style, coupled with various customer support issues with the Lear 23, would see the Learjet Corporation experience many financial 'feasts and famines' which would seriously test the resolve of his loyal but concerned workforce. Fifteen months later Lear flew his next version of his legendary series; the Lear 24. This aircraft had to meet more stringent certification requirements of the then equivalent of part 25 as its take-off weight pushed it into the next category.

During this time period, while working seven days per week, Bill Lear managed to keep his hand in the automotive electronics field by developing and co-marketing the eight-track stereo music player with Learjet, Ford Motor Corporation and the Radio Company of America. It is hard to imagine that anyone could possibly have sufficient energy to enable such a diverse portfolio of projects to be worked at the same-time. Lear managed it; however the financial health of his business along with how his employees perceived him, did suffer in the long-run.

Shortly after both the Learjet 24B. had received its type Certificate, and the one hundredth Learjet model had been delivered, the board of directors under pressure from many shareholders accepted Bill Lear's resignation as Chairman of Learjet Industries on April 2, 1969. Two years earlier, Colorado based Gates Rubber Company had taken over the controlling interest in Learjet Industries after a particularly bad financial spell for Lear. Seven months earlier, in anticipation of the diversification, the company had changed its name from Learjet Corporation. After reorganization was completed in Bill Lear's wake, the company yet again changed its name: to 'Gates Learjet Corporation.' Twenty one years later, in June of 1990 Bombardier purchased the company and the name was changed yet again, this time to: Bombardier Learjet.

After a rest, and also after multiple attempts at various avionics and systems business ventures, Bill Lear later got back into the aircraft design business with his 'Learstar 600' which he licensed to Canadair Corporation from Montreal, Canada. Unfortunately Lear later fell out with Canadair and subsequently sold the exclusive rights to his design, which after his departure, Canadair subsequently went into production with it after renaming it the ' Challenger 600'; but we shall cover this aircraft and its history as this focus continues at Globalair, at a later date.

Even though Bill Lear had so much to be proud of after creating such an austere career for himself, he unfortunately never did see his first aircraft design concept, the Lear Fan project, come to fruition like he had planned, because he passed away on May 14th, 1978. He had first conceived the basic design of the Lear Fan in the late nineteen fifties, prior to his purchase and development of the Model 23. The Lear Fan design concept was based upon the U.S. Army research vehicle which was designed and built by Mississippi State University. Lear's visionary talents saw the research vehicle as way ahead of its time, because it was made of fibreglass. His version of the all-composite design, constructed from Carbon Fibre, eventually did make it into the sky thanks to his widow, Moira. She valiantly lead the build of the Lear Fan until bankruptcy stopped the project in 1985. Again this is also another story that I must keep for you, for a later date.

In all, since the first Learjet model took to the skies in Wichita, there have been 2,716 various Learjet model aircraft built. There are 29 separate variants. Of the 91 Lear 23 aircraft built, only 22 remain in active service, most of them here, in the United States.

Next month we shall focus on the DeHavilland 125 'Hawker.'

Okay, I will see you next month as we further continue this look-back at the history of the various aircraft that have shaped modern business aviation. If you have a suggestion for me as to a specific business aircraft that one of these future Business Aviation focus articles should be dedicated to, please let me know your thoughts. Also remember that any input that you care to make will be of great interest to all of the readers here at Globalair.com. So don't be bashful. Go ahead and write your comments and suggestions here. Please don't forget that whatever you write here, can be seen publicly by everyone that visits this page, so please be funny, be inspired, but most importantly of all, please be nice.

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Jeremy Cox


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